Hilary Hahn's assured Dvorak. Boston Symphony Orchestra, Oct. 12, 2017

Hilary Hahn performs the Dvorak concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Gimeno conducting, at Symphony Hall, Oct. 12, 2017. Robert Torres photograph

Hilary Hahn performs the Dvorak concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Gimeno conducting, at Symphony Hall, Oct. 12, 2017. Robert Torres photograph

Hilary Hahn sailed through, danced around and seemed to thoroughly enjoy performing Dvorak’s devilish violin concerto Thursday evening in Symphony Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Making the hardest things look easy is no guarantee for great performances. But it certainly adds a lot.

Tackling a work that is largely eschewed, except by the most confident of virtuosos, Hahn made the most of the music—not the challenges. It allowed the lyrical integrity of the piece to stay at the forefront—no small matter, since the work can easily be appreciated simply because of its thorny challenges.

The concerto was paired in the first half with Ligeti’s all-too-short Romanian Concerto, and followed after intermission with Schumann’s first symphony. The first half of the program comprised gorgeously balanced, serenely complementary pieces. The second half? Well, no lives were changed, and Schumann’s densely orchestrated, but somehow still ephemeral, “Spring” symphony offers much to listen to.

As much as Hahn entertained, it was ten minutes of Ligeti that made this program a winner. An early period work (1951, subsequently lost, and reconstructed decades later), the title describes its musical origins. Four tense movements are filled with unusual solos, appealing duets, and gorgeous atmospheres.

The first movement featured muted strings, and solos from principal cello (Sato Knudsen) riding over sectional accompaniment. A flute line interjects. A gypsy feel takes over the second movement, with an extended violin solo line (Tamara Smirnova) paired with an echoing offstage French horn (Michael Winter). 

Muted strings underline the third movement, and an onstage fanfare leads to another unusual, muted violin solo. That morphs into a duet with principal second violin Haldan Martinson, and culminates with Smirnova trilling one long note, duetting with the offstage French horn.

A short work, a modest orchestra, but a roomful of musical ideas. The work’s vernacular feel extended an easy air to the Dvorak concerto, which has such deep, insistent lyricism, often masked by the supremely difficult solo part.

Hahn’s unwaveringly accurate tone, her confidence and collegiality—listening in to her stage-mates, swaying and shimmying to rhythmic nuances—stood out. The solo part weaves itself into the orchestral part—in the ongoing discussion about whether concertos are combat or partnering, this one falls distinctly on the side of partnering. There is no cadenza, but virtuosic challenges abound anyway. 

Gimeno gave Schumann a crisp, enthusiastic reading. The scherzo, with its infectious A section and unusual trio, had real energy. It is surprising that such a layered orchestration—nobody sits this one out—can still sound like a simple confection. In a different mood, this might give a sense of mastery; in some ways, it feels like a disconnect. The playing was uniformly engaged, although a string section figure in the final movement came out at first as disjointed (when it returned for a second time, all was well).

CADENCE: Jean-Pascal Vachon’s dissertation on the violin concerto made this program book a rare treat: it was simultaneously encyclopedic and accessible. John Harbison’s program note (wasn’t this a first?) on the Schumann symphony gave a enjoyably alternate perspective to the scholarly work usually published; not that it wasn’t detailed, but from another angle—the composer’s. 

Hahn’s playing was notable for many things, but her volume was surprising. Her web site says she plays a Villaume, from the 19th century. Gorgeous, and powerful.

A personal note: Remembering Marjorie Moerschner, a friend, who passed away Oct. 9. Marjorie sat in the best seat at Symphony Hall—first row center, first balcony—every Thursday for decades. Actually, since the 1940s, and the seat was in her family for a generation before that as well. We intersected in multiple musical ways: at Symphony Hall; in Rockport, with other friends; on the Cape, at her historic home in Brewster, when assignments took me there. She was kind and intelligent, devoted to her church, to music, and to books. 


The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Gimeno conducting, performs music of Ligeti, Dvorak and Schumann this afternoon at 1:30 p.m. and Saturday evening at 8 p.m. 888-266-1200; bso.org



Rhode Island Philharmonic: Let the contest begin

If you’re a lover of mystery and competition, this is your season to keep an eye on the Rhode Island Philharmonic. Eight different conductors—only some of whom are candidates—will guest on the Philharmonic podium this season, auditioning for the permanent position as music director of the Phil.

Following last year’s retirement of the exceedingly popular Larry Rachleff, after 21 years, it won’t be an easy choice. But it should be lots of fun for symphony watchers and music lovers—eight different conductors, all bringing their A game.

James Sommerville will be the first. The principal horn of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and long-term (2007-15) conductor of the Hamilton (Ont.) Philharmonic Orchestra, Sommerville leads the opening night program on Sept. 16. Repertory includes Jennifer Higdon’s “blue cathedral,” Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto (Simone Porter, soloist), and Sibelius’s Second Symphony.

Sommerville’s program is representative of the entire season: in an effort to make a strong, positive impact, each of the conductors has programmed works that are unusual, virtuosic and potential crowd-pleasers. 

Eckart Preu follows suit in the Oct. 14 performance, conducting Miguel del Aguila’s “Conga-Line in Hell” (gotta love that title), Mozart’s elegant D minor piano concerto (No. 20, with Alon Goldstein as soloist), and the Saint-Saëns Organ symphony. 

On Nov. 18 conductor Bramwell Tovey returns to the Phil with soloist Inon Barnatan, performing a bracing program featuring Brahms’s first piano concerto, Berlioz’s “Le Corsaire” overture, and Elgar’s atmospheric “Enigma Variations.” 

Each of the conductors also gets a second chance to impress: Preu leads a Friday Rush Hour series repeat of the Saint-Saëns symphony (Nov. 13), and Sommerville (Sept. 15) and Tovey (Nov. 17) lead open rehearsals of their programs (www.ri-philharmonic.org; 410 248-7000). 

Ken-David Masur (Jan. 20), Michael Christie (Feb. 17), Victor Yampolsky (March 17), Jacomo Bairos (Apr. 7), and Edwin Outwater (May 5) will also guest after the first of the year. The Philharmonic’s executive director David Beauchesne notes that not all of the guests are actual candidates for the permanent job—“this is not a beauty contest,” he’s said, “we need to find the right chemistry”—but that won’t stop the speculation.